The brunt of bullying

Bullying can have far-reaching negative effects on physical and mental health - and campaigners in the UAE want to raise awareness of the problem here.

In a Sky documentary, former cricketer Andrew Flintoff says he hopes his fight in the boxing ring will help purge memories of being bullied as a child. Scott Heavey / Getty Images
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When the former England cricketer Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff stepped into the boxing ring on Friday to take on and beat the American professional boxer Richard Dawson, he may have been hoping to exorcise a few demons. Flintoff was bullied as a child and in a Sky documentary he expressed the hope that the fight would help purge his memories of that tough time. "I want to put that side of my life to bed a little bit," he says.

Flintoff's troubles, which have included bulimia and binge-drinking, may, according to a study by the Crime Victims' Institute at Sam Houston State University in Texas, be directly attributed to the bullying he experienced as a child. The research shows that childhood bullying can lead to long-term health consequences, including general and mental health issues, behavioural problems, eating disorders, smoking and alcohol abuse and homelessness.

"Bullying victimisation that occurs early in life may have significant and substantial consequences for those victims later in life," says Leana Bouffard, an associate professor of criminal justice and the director of the Crime Victims' Institute.

Although the study focused on adults who had suffered repeated bullying, Bouffard believes that even isolated incidences of bullying can have an effect.

"I would expect that any incident of victimisation or bullying would have some consequences," she says. "The effects of isolated incidents might be short-term, but the effects would be cumulative with repeated incidents."

The research comes as no surprise to Samineh Shaheem, an assistant professor of psychology at Middlesex University Dubai, who founded an anti-bullying campaign in the UAE, Bolt Down on Bullying.

"The effects of any kind of bullying can be horrendous and leave long-lasting effects on the brain," she says.

Although there are no official statistics related to bullying in the UAE, it happens. Cyber-bullying in particular is on the rise, according to Shaheem.

"That is partly due to the strict rules which have been enforced at schools," she says. "Therefore the aggressor will find other ways to reach their victims, such as through the internet or smartphones."

Wail Huneidi runs an anti-bullying campaign in Abu Dhabi ( He is concerned that the problem is not always taken seriously by the authorities.

"The concept of bullying does not exist in the Arab world as it [does] in the western world," he says. "There is still a lot to do to spread this concept."

Shaheem agrees that there is room for improvement. "I think the people of the UAE have been very supportive in trying to understand and prevent bullying. However, like all other societies, there is still so much more work we need to do. This should be an ongoing process."

No country has all the answers, but Shaheem warns against simply copying other nations. "Cultural variables contribute significantly to the visage of bullying, therefore cut-and-paste solutions from other locations should not be used in the UAE," she says. "My research here has highlighted key cultural variables such as the UAE being a transient, highly diverse society and people have quite a different understanding of what bullying is and how it should be dealt with. We need to align our values in regard to this matter so that we can proceed with the same objectives - to eliminate acts of verbal, sexual, physical and cyberbullying completely."

A survivor's story

Andrew Webber, 40, the Abu Dhabi-based author of the thriller Erasure (, was bullied throughout primary school in Australia. Living with his unmarried mother, he was called names, excluded from games and even pelted with stones. He suffered from depression for decades.

"It's a line ball as to what affected what. My family has a long history of severe mental illness, so as a result I think I was programmed to have the depression with or without the bullying. Perhaps because of the way my head works, though, I might have inadvertently indicated to the rest of the children that I should be cut off from the herd. What I do know is that the bullying certainly didn't help my state of mind.

"In high school I did things only to be accepted. I started smoking, I disrespected teachers if I thought it would give me more points with my peers and I'd fight anyone.

"I would suggest that the foundations set down in primary school were a pretty large cause of my ending high school early.

"I made the decision very early that I didn't want children. I have a fear that my child would spend the first 12 years of his/her life terrified and the next couple of decades talking themselves out of ending it. There is something profoundly altering in the memory of being seven and considering what the best way to kill oneself is.

"None of this really depicts who I am now, though. I have been well for 10 years and am a happy, funny and positive person."